16th May 1906. The Sweat of one’s Brow.

It has been said that half of the world is ignorant of how the other half live. This was certainly the case, regarding the ‘sweated trades’ of England’s not too distant past.

In 1888 there had been a House of Lords Select Committee looking into the conditions of women in the work-place, this at the time when the plight of the match girls was becoming apparent.

Many women were in the forefront of efforts to improve conditions and pay. This included Mary (May), Princess of Wales who Today in 1906, visited the Daily News, ‘Sweating Exhibition’ in Queen’s Hall, London, which had been organized by the Women’s Industrial Council. (1)

The women attending were addressed by delegates and treated to lantern slides lectures. They were housed in a temperance hotel, and it was reported, ‘where their needs were attended to by the matron.’ (2)

At the Exhibition were representatives of many trades, as diverse as artificial flower to nail makers, but all known for employing women for a miserly rate of pay.

These included dressmakers employed in Oxford Street, London, the hub of Empire, working for an average of 14/- per week, much on seasonal work and in poor working conditions.


Worse must have been knowing that the pretty garments would have been beyond their pockets, as they were headed for the idle rich.

Also present were the female chainmakers. One of the powerful voices supporting the women was Mary Macarthur who had founded the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) in 1906, when the Cradley Heath, chainmakers were denied the minimum wage of 11/- (shillings) a week (55p), set by the Trade Board Act. This amounted to 3/- more than they earned. (3)

Sweatshop 1890.

Sweatshop 1890.



Then there was the woman with 5 children and a consumptive husband, who earns 2d (twopence) a gross for making matchboxes supplying her own paste earning 5/-(one quarter of a pound), per week. Seven people living in one room for which a rent of 2/-6d (two shillings and sixpence), was paid.

Another was engaged in beading of shoes for which she was paid up to 2/-6d for 12 pairs. She worked 14 hours a day for 6/- per week. A Leicester glove stitcher received 4½d  for a dozen pairs.

The Bishop of Glasgow was moved to say that: ‘among the land of the free, there were amongst its millions, thousands of the most wretched thanks to sweating.’

Ironically the women themselves, many employed in home-work, were against being organized, as it meant rebellion, having been trained to submission by church and politician. In any case involved as they were in the arduous rearing of a family, as well as work, they had little resources or energy, to get involved in union activities.

(1)  Mary, later Queen of George V, took a serious interest in the conditions of the working poor being a regular visitor to their homes and places of work.

The Exhibition had been opened on May 2nd by Princess Henry of Battenberg and ran to the 29th of the month.

(2) As reported in the Primitive Methodist Leader, 10.5.1906.

(3) She was later to bring 800 women out on strike in 1910. Funds poured in; the residue enabled the building of The Cradley Heath Institution for Women Workers.

Cradley Heath is in the ‘Black Country’, near Birmingham.

Ref.Pic re Poster/ourhistory-hayes.blogspot/mary-macarthur.

Ref.Pic/ booklet.museum-of-London-prints.

Ref: alamy.com.

Ref: paperspast.natlib.gov.nz.

Ref: labourhistory.org>archives.mary-macarthur-the-non-stop-power-of-organization.

Ref: maryneal.org.

Ref: nia.gov.au.

Ref: Case for a Living Wage, Jerold L Waltman, p.194. Google Books Result.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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